Julie Leoni, head of emotional literacy at the Marches School in Shropshire, found her thoughts about attachment and trust challenged by the experience of acting as a support for a girl giving policy testimony about being sexually abused

I have been working a proposal for a research project linking Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) into design and technology, with a particular focus on how to encourage safe risk-taking. The SEAL materials do touch on the idea of learning from mistakes, but not in a way that goes far enough to address encouraging the taking of risks in design. A lot of the literature sees unsafe risk-taking as an aspect of low self- esteem. People with high self-esteem will take risks and face failure, seeing it as part of their learning, rather than as failure.


Another perspective comes from attachment theory. Children who are securely attached to their primary care givers, will take safe risks. This is because they know they have a secure base to which they can return. Children who have not had a secure base will either become fearful of taking risks or will take unsafe risks. In working with SEAL, I have been aware that the quality of the relationship between the adult delivering the work and the group of young people, was as important as the materials, if not more so. This was underlined for me when our head boy and girl gave some feedback on the findings of our school council on ‘What makes a good lesson?’ Of the 15 or more slides they showed at staff briefing, only a couple were about anything other than relationships between staff and pupils. Pupils said they wanted help to feel safe, to have a laugh, to have a teacher understand their learning styles. They said they wanted to have the teacher show an interest in them and to try to relate the work to them as individuals.


So in went the proposal to look at ways of developing attachment between adults and adults, children and adults and children and children as a way to increase safe risk- taking in school. And then life presented the other side of the coin. One of the girls at school disclosed that she had been sexually assaulted by a man outside school and in the local area. I was asked to support her while she gave video evidence to the police. After the initial rage had subsided, my overwhelming feeling as I listened in silence to the girl’s testimony was sorrow for her. She is kind, naive and trusting. She had trusted the adult involved and been betrayed. Why can we as adults not protect our students from the worst aspects of ourselves and others? Should we bring our children up to be distrusting and suspicious? Should we teach them to ask for evidence for every assertion made?


So the dichotomy: attachment and trust are necessary if we are to fulfil our potential, to become the best we can be. And yet, how do we learn and teach about who to trust and what safe attachment is? As a woman in 2007, I can earn enough money to support myself and my children. I can own a house, vote, have sex and marry who I want, I can travel and I can stay at home. But that will not in itself prevent me from being raped and assaulted. My student put an end to her ordeal by telling a close friend who pushed her into telling an adult. She has been amazingly resilient, thanks to the presence of close, sensitive and informed parents. Attachment will help her to heal as much as is possible. What do I wish I’d been able to tell her, to protect her from the perpetrator? What will I tell my sons? I think I want to say something about power; about healthy attachment being respectful of each others’ rights, being supportive but not invasive. A healthy, trusting friendship is interested but knows when to back off, is supportive but will allow for space, has space for differences of meaning, opinion, response and needs. It should be two-way and relaxed.

The messages we give

I want all my children to know that no one has the right to touch your body unless you give willing, informed consent. That if you feel ‘funny’ about a person or a situation, then trust your instincts, get away and tell someone. That it is never your ‘fault’ if an adult does something to you, you are never to blame, tell someone. I want them to know that you don’t have to like everyone; you don’t need to hurt or harm those you don’t like, but nor do you have to have anything to do with them. I want them to know that most people can be trusted, and some can’t. And I want the system to acknowledge and work with the fact that some offenders will never offend again and others will.

So where does that leave us as teachers in power-based schools? Firstly, we need to remember that the relationships we form are crucial to the work we do. We also need to remember that we have power to coerce, bully , shame, humiliate and ridicule, but we also have power to protect, care for, inform and empower. We have to offer models for safe attachments so that when risks arise, our children know what a safe attachment feels like and can take a risk, or can trust their instincts and use their knowledge about their rights, to get away from the risk as fast as possible, to ask for help from someone they know and trust.